Kylie Sanders

"How do higher education institutions, such as Lewis University, accommodate low-income and first-generation students so that they experience a strong sense of belonging on campus?"
College Writing 2, Dr. Thomas McNamara

How do higher education institutions, such as Lewis University, accommodate low-income and first-generation students so that they experience a strong sense of belonging on campus?


The aim of this project is to discover how welcomed low-income and first-generation students feel at higher education institutions. The research focuses on low-income and first-generation students specifically because low-income students tend to feel like outsiders in the social communities at college due to their lack of money and “a recent study of FGCS enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities found that after 4 years, 75.3% of FGCS failed to earn a degree” (Trawalter, Hoffman, & Palmer, 2021; Demetriou, Meece, Eaker-Rich, & Powell, 2017).

During my research, I interviewed four students, all of which are first-generation students and two identify as low-income, as well as conducted a survey that was open to all Lewis students to gain perspective on a student’s experience on campus. The results displayed that while most low-income and first-generation students feel some sense of belonging at Lewis, it is not as strong as the feeling higher-income and non-first-generation students perceive. The responses of the survey and interviews illustrate overall that this weaker sense of belonging derives from limited time available to have a meaningful social life and a lack of time actual spent on campus. And based on these results, as well as what other researchers have found, the best way for higher education institutes to accommodate low-income and first-generation students is by encouraging them to be socially active. There are a couple of ways to accomplish this, such as spread awareness of clubs and services, making activities accessible to everyone, and allowing more students to remain on campus through more available parking.


Since this project focuses on a student’s sense of belonging, it is important to determine what that means. Many researchers on this topic utilize Terrell L. Strayhorn’s definition of sense of belonging, which "refers to students' perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers)" (Strayhorn 2012). And according to countless research, a student’s sense of belonging is directly correlated to their level of success during and after higher education, and that minorized students, or student who are “members of other historically oppressed social identity groups (e.g., people of color, people with disabilities, LGBT people, people with a low socioeconomic status, or individuals whose religious or spiritual background is not Christian),” have a low-sense of belonging (Vaccaro & Newman 2016).  Low-income students tend to have a low sense of belonging since they aren’t able to relate to their more privileged peers and since they are considered a minority, many universities don’t have resources available to low-income students to help them succeed financially, academically, or socially. And many first-generation students don’t have the necessary guidance of their parents to help them in college, so they are left to figuring things out mostly on their own. College can be difficult to navigate as is, so attempting to “wing it” leads to very few first-gen students actually making it to graduation.

So, what are some repercussions of not having a strong sense of belonging? A survey showed that there is a direct correlation between a sense of belonging and levels of depression and stress. And since high levels of depression and stress result in lack of sleep and decrease in academic performance, it is important to make sure students maintain good mental health. A good way to do that is by utilizing the university’s counseling services. In the article, First-Generation Students' Sense of Belonging, Mental Health, and Use of Counseling Services at Public Research Universities, authors Michael Stebleton, Krista Soria, and Ronald Huesman seek to discover how first-generation students’ sense of belonging and use on campus counsel services compare to non-first-generation students. The authors conducted a survey within six public research institutions in California with a total of 145,150 student participants and discovered that first-gen students had a lower-sense of belonging and lower mental health compared to other classmates, and that they don’t seek out counseling to help them. The authors looked at the reasons students said as to why they did not use counseling services despite needing them and found the leading causes provided by the students were inconvenient location and hours, no time in schedule, and unawareness of services. There are major problems with experiencing high levels of depression and stress, such as lack of quality sleep, alienation, and trouble concentrating. All these factors can cause a decrease in academic success, which puts academic based scholarships at risk. Many low-income and first-generation students rely on these scholarships, so it is important to make sure they feel a strong sense of belonging so that they don’t experience these dangerous levels of stress and depression, and if they do, it is important to make sure they receive support. Lewis’s Counseling Services has already tackled some of the issues given as to why students don’t make use of the services. There is no need for an appointment, students can walk in whenever they have the time, and if they can’t meet on campus, they are able to meet virtually.

There are many other resources available at higher educational institutions that help a student develop a stronger sense of belonging, one of which being institutional support systems, or “academic and social spaces designed to support student learning and success, as well as employees of the university who work to support student learning and development” (Means & Pyne 2017). In their research, Darris Means and Kimberly Pyne followed 10 first generation, low-income college students from a college access program located in a medium-sized private university in southeastern America through their first year and discover that strong institutional support structures greatly increase a student’s sense of belonging, especially the multicultural office. Lewis University has many institutional support systems, such as The Writing Center, diversity and multicultural clubs, and scholarships, to name a few. Means and Pyne also argue that living on campus is positively correlated to having a strong sense of belonging. However, according to Lewis University’s Enrollment and Credit Hour Production Report of Fall 2020, 85.4% of students are commuters while only 14.6% are residents. So, it is necessary to make sure the residents have access to these support systems. Lewis University does an excellent job of making sure activities are accessible to all students. Jill Siegfried, Director of Student Recreation, Fitness, and Wellness, discussed in one of Lewis’ Conversations from Stritch Hall how Lewis has a TikTok account as well as virtual meetings to keep students engaged in physical activities even if they cannot attend on campus. Many clubs at Lewis provide Zoom links and other institutional support systems at Lewis, such as the Writing Center and Counseling Services, also are open for virtual meetings.

Another way to improve a sense of belonging is having a good social life. Based on the experiences of 16 first-generation college students who successfully graduated college, it was concluded that forming mentoring relationships and involving oneself in student organizations greatly improves chances at success (Demetriou, Meece, Eaker-Rich, & Powell, 2017). The study conducted in the article The Activities, Roles, and Relationships of Successful First-Generation College Students began with 100 student cases from a large public institution in the southeastern United States, was narrowed down using categorical data to a final study group of 16 FGCS student cases, with all 16 cases being “financially needy, came from a hometown within the state, traditional-age college students (between 18 and 24), and graduating on time (within 4.0 to 4.5 years of starting their baccalaureate degree)” (Demetriou, Meece, Eaker-Rich, & Powell, 2017). The article provides parts of the interviews with each of the students and the research discovered that these 16 students were successful in graduating due to their involvement on campus (socially and academically) and forming relationships with peers, staff, and employers. So, how does this relate to Lewis? Lewis University offers a wide range of activities, so any student looking to join a club would have no problem finding one that fits their interest, allowing them to meet new people that enjoy similar things. Better yet, Lewis provides scholarships based around these clubs. For example, the Best Buddies Annual Scholarship awards a member of the Best Buddies club in need of financial aid $2,400.00 and the Dominique Wood Annual Scholarship awards a Track and Field student athlete in good academic standing $2,000. This is significant because these scholarships encourage low-income students to become involved on campus, allowing them to reap multiple benefits. Not only are they getting money to help pay for college, but they also become part of the Lewis community and have a stronger sense of belonging. Lewis also has a couple of mentoring programs available. Flyers Rise is a mentorship program that pairs current Lewis students with successful alumni. Flyer2Flyer is another student support program that allows students to receive coaching, support, and guidance from fellow students and faculty. It also offers access to loaner laptops and WiFi hotspots as well as subsidies to support students with dependents.


The best place to gain understanding on a student’s have a sense of belonging is from students themselves. So, I surveyed and interviewed Lewis University students to get their perspective. About 17% of Lewis students come from a household where income levels are less than $30,000 and about 33% of undergraduates are first-generation students. Since the majority of Lewis’ demographic does not fall into these categories, it is easy for these few students who do to feel alienated and not as welcomed. The survey and interviews only show a small sample of the experiences these students have faced.

I posted a survey on the Lewis App’s student feed and received 13 responses. The survey consisted of four sections. The first section had basic questions to determine if the student was a resident or commuter, the length of their commute, if they are a first-generation student, and if they work. The second section had students rate how well they agreed with a presented statement on a scale from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). The third section focused on the student’s level of satisfaction with different aspects of their time at Lewis also on a scale from one to five. And the last section was open-ended to hear in the student’s own words how welcome they feel and what can be done to improve that feeling.

When looking for interviewees, I asked peers in my classes if they received the Pell grant, which a student’s Expected Family Contribution needs to be at or below $5,846 in order to be eligible for, and if they are first-generation students. One student did receive the grant and was a first-gen student, while another was only first-generation. When I discovered both students came from the same high school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, I started looking for more students from that area. My high school was in the same district as theirs, which includes three different high schools, so I reached out to old classmates that have also chosen to attend Lewis and I found one who was a first-gen student. My final interviewee is a Lewis alumnus who both received the Pell grant and is a first-generation student. All were asked a series of questions to determine how they spend their time outside of the classroom and their general feelings towards the institution.


Based on the collective responses of the survey and the student interviews, low-income and first-generation students at Lewis feel they belong, but not as much as their more privileged peers.


The survey results provided very telling information. Let’s start with who the participants are. Out of the 13 responses, 46.2% of the students are first-generation, 92.3% are commuters, and 46.2% self-identify as low-income (note: the same percentages of first-generation and low-income students is a coincidence; not all first-generation students self-identified as low-income). One question in the second section had a statement saying, “I feel connected with the Lewis community” and 0% of students selected 5, the option for ‘Strongly Agree.’  Similarly, 0% of students chose 5 for the statement “I am highly involved in campus activities and clubs.” In fact, for that question the majority of the responses, 53.8%, were for 1, ‘Strongly disagree.’

Since strong institutional support structures and the use of public spaces greatly increase a student’s sense of belonging (Pyne & Means, 2013; Trawalter, Hoffman, & Palmer, 2021), I had a couple of questions focused on that and the results show students don’t greatly utilize these structures. Only 15.4% agreed with the statement “I make use of institutional resources, such as the writing center and counseling services” and 53.9% disagreed with “I frequently use the library to study and complete homework.” This is concerning since the use of these structures help students succeed. And since very few students use the counseling services, it is important to look at mental health.

Due to the direct relationship between a sense of belonging and quality of mental health, I asked a couple of questions regarding this topic (Stebleton, Soria, and Huesman 2014). 38.5% of students agreed with the statement “I experience high levels of depression, stress, and/or anxiety” and 46.2% chose neutral. That is a lot of students experiencing poor mental health, yet so few of them are reaching out to counselors. In another question, I asked about students’ sleep. The good news is 69.3% of students reported getting adequate amount of sleep, which is roughly 8 hours. Those who reported getting less than that tended to have jobs. If work and homework are already cutting into sleep, then it is understandable why these low-income and first-generation students who are working to pay for college are unable to make time for being socially active. Unfortunately for them, the social experience they are missing out on would help them become better students, making the money spent on tuition all the more worth it.

Professors and other university staff also play a role in a student’s feeling of welcomeness, so part of my survey asked questions about the relationship between students and professors (Demetriou, Meece, Eaker-Rich, & Powell, 2017; Means & Pyne 2017). It is wonderful that 92.4% of students are “comfortable reaching out to professors and other faculty members when problems arise.” Similarly, 84.7% of students “feel professors know them well and that they can talk with them on topics outside of classroom problems.” And finally, 89.6% agree they “are treated with respect by professors and peers.” All this data displays that these students aren’t struggling with connecting with professors, which is great since a strong relationship with a professor or other staff member helps students succeed.

To get a better grasp on the students’ social lives, I asked how satisfied students were with their social experiences on campus and none reported 1, ‘Highly Unsatisifed,’ which is excellent. However, the majority did choose 2, ‘Somewhat unsatisfied.’ 76.9% of students disagreed with “I am highly involved in campus activities and clubs,” and 0% selected ‘Strongly Agree.” For another question, I offered the statement “I feel I am a valued member of my sport team/club” and though the scale remained 1-5, I added 6 as an option for students to choose if they are not involved in any sport or club. 92.3% chose option 6. However, the good news is that the only other option selected besides 6 was 5. In the question focus solely on commuters, 61.2% said they strongly agree with the statement “I go home shortly after my classes end.” While it would be understandable if commuters left right away to get to work on time, many commuters didn’t report that they also work. So, why don’t they stay on campus longer? Well, in the open-ended section of the survey, many students said they would remain on campus longer if not for so little parking spaces and the fear of getting a ticket. As a commuter myself, I have seen first-hand the competition for parking spaces and I myself have been late to a class due to having to park on the other side of the campus.


The Lewis alumnus, Natalie, originally went to Joliet Junior College as a paralegal student. She didn’t know she wanted to go to Lewis at first but decided on it when comparing tuition costs to other colleges nearby. Due to her low socioeconomic status, she went to JJC to get most of her gen ed credits completed since they were significantly cheaper to take there instead of a four-year college. She said Lewis was “alright,” but she didn’t join any clubs. Her argument was that she didn’t have the time for any since all her time was taken up by work and homework. But Natalie did mention if she got to go back and do it again, she probably would have joined clubs because she feels she missed out on a huge part of the college experience. During the conversation with her, she said, “If money wasn’t a factor, I would have lived on campus. But money is a factor, so I lived at home. To be fair, I lived close enough that commuting wasn’t that big of a deal. But I wish I got to experience stocking up on ramen or complaining about my awful roommate, or whatever dormers have to live through.”  Sadly, Natalie doesn’t get a do-over on the college experience, which is why it is important for current students to realize that it is beneficial to make the most of their time at Lewis.

And while commuting isn’t a big deal to Natalie, it was a huge deal to Austin, a first-generation student. He mentioned how if he wants to make sure he gets to school on time, he has to leave home at least an hour before class even starts. That is more than the average provided by the survey, which was about 30 minutes one-way. When I asked about his free time, Austin mentioned how he doesn’t have much, between school, work, and sports. With so much of his time taken up, he estimated he gets about 5 hours of sleep each night, quite a bit lower than the recommended 8 hours. I followed up asking about how the less sleep impacted him, and he discussed how he feels drained and less motivated. Less energy and motivation can greatly affect academic performance, and Austin depends on many academic based scholarships. I also asked about his participation on campus, and he said, “If I didn’t have cross-country and track, I would just leave school immediately after class,” which reflects the responses from the survey. He also shared a very interesting story about sleep and cross-country. He explained how he was exhausted and was starting to feel sick so he emailed his cross-country coach about this and that he would be skipping practice. The next practice, even though the coach didn’t say explicitly anything, Austin got the feeling is coach was extremely upset with him. He ended his story with “Class and sports are the only reason I am ever on campus, but I actually looked forward to staying for cross-country. I’m not so sure anymore.” That was concerning to hear since research has shown that a good relationship between a staff member and a student fosters a good sense of belonging (Demetriou, Meece, Eaker-Rich, & Powell, 2017; Means & Pyne 2017). If Austin’s own coach makes him feel like he doesn’t belong, then it would be difficult for him to create other meaningful relationships on campus.

Stephen, both a low-income and first-generation student, is a chemistry major and reported he quite likes Lewis. “There is a good vibe on campus,” he said, “I don’t know how to really explain it.” When we discussed his plans while at Lewis, he said that while financial aid has helped a lot, he wants to graduate in three years so he can save money not paying for the fourth year. He is taking as many major-oriented classes as possible and wants to take his gen-ed courses at JJC over the summer since it is cheaper to transfer them in than to take them at Lewis. I asked how he manages to balance both work and being a full-time first-year student taking 18 credit hours and he laughed, saying “I’m not sure I am. Luck?” During the rest of my interview, I learned that his guidance counselor has helped him a lot, especially since he plans to graduate in three years and his parents are not familiar enough with college to help him to the extent that the counselor has. While graduating in three years will save him money, it costs him something equally as valuable; a good college experience. Four years of college crammed into three years creates a full schedule, leaving very little time for being social. However, I’m glad that he was able to form a strong relationship with a Lewis staff member.

But not all counselors are as helpful as Stephen’s. Anna, a first-gen nursing student I went to high school with said her counselor might as well be nonexistent. “I have had one meeting with them and it felt like every question I asked got the answer ‘I don’t know.’ Like, what am I supposed to do with that? So, as far as I am concerned, my counselor is Google.” I asked if she has tried reaching out more or asking another advisor for help, and she said no. When I asked why not, she believed that it wouldn’t accomplish much so there is no point in trying. Similar to Austin, Anna doesn’t have a strong relationship with one of the most influential staff members in her college career. But despite the lack of relationship with a faculty member, Anna still has meaningful relationships with peers. When we talked about her social life, she appeared more energetic. She made a couple of friends in freshman orientation that brought her along to different clubs and activities. “I’ll be honest, I had no desire to go to that carnival thing, but they dragged me with, and I actually had a really good time. I met more people and now I am in the VR club. I was never a gamer in high school, but I guess I am now.”

Overall, it appears that all four of these students are satisfied with their academic success. This is a good reflection on the survey results as 69.3% of students claimed they too were satisfied with their academic experience. However, in order to get the best sense of belonging possible, it is important to excel in both the academic and social aspects, not one or the other. And the interviewed and surveyed students aren’t receiving the social experience they should be. Some of the interviewees have some social interaction, which is good, but is it enough?


The best way to improve a student’s sense of belonging is to encourage them to be more involved. Obviously, the best way for that to happen is be a resident, but as Natalie mentioned, living on campus costs a lot of money. For example, according the Office of the Bursar, Lewis tuition costs $35,262 annually. The IPEDS Data Feedback Report displays the different types of aid Lewis students receive. Hypothetically, if a student is awarded the provided amounts of the Federal grant, the Pell grant, the State/local grant, and the Institutional grant, they would receive $33,443. That isn’t even enough to cover tuition, let alone technology fees and books. And to reside, the cheapest dorm and meal plan totals to $5,399. So, with costs this high, it makes sense low-income students choose to be commuters.

So, since most low-income and first-generation students are commuters, they need to be convinced to stay on campus to participate in activities. Many participants in the survey and students in general have expressed the desire for more parking spaces. For instance, on the Lewis App, many students made memes about expanding Parking Lot C.  With more spaces to park, students don’t have to race to get to campus extra early, cutting into valuable sleep, or feel pressured to leave so spaces can open.
Another way to make students feel more welcomed is by having them utilize the institutional support structures (Pyne & Means, 2013). And since both faculty and tutoring places are considered support structures, Professors can work with students more to encourage them to visit the Writing Center.

Lewis could offer also scholarships to more students as well. Almost all the participants in the survey said more scholarships would help easy financial challenges. Although there are many scholarships, only one or two students can receive each one. If more students were able to obtain scholarships, they would be less concerned about paying for college and would be able to enjoy their time there. And more scholarships surrounding clubs, or major, as one survey respondent suggested, would definitely inspire students to be more socially active.

So what is Lewis University doing right? Well, many articles reported that lack of awareness for resources is one of the major factors in these minoritized students having a weak sense of belonging, but in my opinion, this is an area in which Lewis excels. Lewis sends out emails to all students that display the activities of the week as well as specific opportunities, there are posters in every hallway, and students talk and help each other on the Lewis App. There is a strong of community on campus, we just need to make sure everyone feels a part of it.


There are a few limitations to this study. The first of which is how few students took the survey and were interviewed. If more students participated in the survey, the results would more accurately show the average Lewis student’s beliefs and experiences. Unfortunately, if students truly do not feel they belong at Lewis, then they would not be motivated to take the survey, which wouldn’t allow me to view the responses that best relate to my research. I also should have interviewed a couple more students since every person experience something different and unique.

Another limitation would be the solution to create more parking spaces. There is a decent amount of land unused surrounding current parking lots, and it would be greatly beneficial for Lewis to have more spots. However, it would be counter-productive if Lewis ended up raising costs of tuition to cover the expenses of making larger lots. Many students already struggle as is with the current tuition. A couple of students in the survey also advocated for free parking, but (with the exception of this year) Lewis gains a lot of money from parking stickers as well as tickets, so it is doubtful they would make parking free. But if free parking means more students will remain on campus, then Lewis could probably make up the revenue from food sales.

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